Musk Plans a Dozen Starship Launches in 2022 Starting in January

Musk Plans a Dozen Starship Launches in 2022 Starting in January

SpaceX’s Elon Musk said today he is planning at least a dozen Starship launches in 2022, starting in January if the FAA gives approval by the end of the year as expected. Renowned for his view that humanity must become a multi-planet species to survive and begin sending millions of people to Mars this decade, his timetable for that was more reserved this time though his conviction remains fervent.

Musk spoke to a joint meeting of the Space Studies Board and the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. While the conversation might have been expected to focus on how Starship can send science missions to Earth orbit and beyond, it expanded far beyond that into Musk’s philosophy about life, the universe and everything.

Charmingly, he was initially joined by his youngest son whose birth name is X Æ A-12, but everyone calls Baby X. The sound didn’t work for a video that started off his presentation so the audience got to listen to Baby X’s delightful reactions to the images (at the 6:53 mark) before others whisked him off to another room.

Elon Musk and son X Æ A-12 (Baby X) speaking to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. November 17, 2021. Screengrab.

Musk’s timetable for Starship flights was the big news from the event.

Starship is already in testing at SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, TX.  Five test flights of the second stage, called Starship,  to 10,000 feet took place over the past year. The first four ended in explosions, but the fifth succeeded and Musk is now getting ready to attempt a launch to orbit.

SpaceX’s two-stage Starship space transportation system stacked for the first time, August 6, 2021, Boca Chica, TX. The silver first stage is called Super Heavy, and the second stage, covered in black thermal protection tiles, is Starship, a name also used to refer to the two of them together. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Orbital launches require both the Starship second stage, powered by six methane-liquid oxygen (methalox) Raptor engines, and the Super Heavy first stage with 29 Raptors, although he said that will grow to 33 in later versions. He also is developing an upgraded Raptor 2 all of which will give the vehicle “2.2-2.3 times the thrust of the Saturn V, so this is really very big, it’s biggest rocket ever designed.”

Somewhat confusingly, the Starship-Super Heavy combination is also called Starship.

The five second stage test flights used only three Raptors, but SpaceX just did a static fire test with all six engines needed for orbital flight.

Super Heavy has not flown yet, although SpaceX stacked the two stages together for the first time in August. The 9-meter (30-foot) diameter vehicle is 120 meters (395 feet) tall.

The FAA is conducting an environmental assessment before approving the launch of the entire vehicle and held two public hearings in October. It said this week that it expects to make a decision by the end of the year.

Anticipating that action, Musk at first said he expects the first orbital test flight in January, but later said January or February. He also cautioned, as he often does with test flights of his rockets, that it might not be successful, but is “confident” Starship will reach orbit in 2022 and after a dozen test flights be ready to launch “real payloads” in 2023.

NASA signed a contract with SpaceX this year to use Starship as a Human Landing System (HLS) to return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024, though that has slipped to at least 2025. Musk  has a separate agreement with Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for a trip around the Moon in 2023.

The first (Super Heavy) and second (Starship) stages being stacked at Starbase, Boca Chica, TX, August 2021. Photo credit: SpaceX

Starship is not just for Earth orbit and the Moon: “Architecturally it is capable of transporting almost any arbitrary mass to any solid surface in the solar system” using fuel depots in orbit and eventually propellant generation on the Moon and Mars. “Basically any place we can put the gas station, that gives us another whole leap forward.”

Musk’s vision is for humanity to become a multi-planet species moving millions of people to Mars to guard against extinction in case Earth is destroyed by natural or human-made catastrophe. Dates in this decade for the first human landing on Mars have been suggested, but today he was more reserved.

He said he would want two or three uncrewed landings before sending people, laughingly adding that the first mission should carry only low cost experiments. Later, in response to a question from Amanda Hendrix, co-chair of the SSB’s Committee on Planetary Protection (CoPP) about SpaceX’s planetary protection plan, he said “Mars is a ways off.” Musk has been rather dismissive of planetary protection concerns in the past. CoPP and others have been looking at ways to accommodate both the interests of the commercial sector and scientists who want a chance to determine whether life does or did exist on Mars before the planet is biologically contaminated by humans.

The day before this meeting, he said on Twitter that even Raptor 2 is insufficient to achieve his multi-planetary species goal. For that “a complete design overhaul is necessary for the engine” and it “won’t be called Raptor.”

Musk’s fundamental philosophy, reiterated several times today, is that humanity’s “light of consciousness” is at risk and can only be preserved by becoming a multi-planet species.

SpaceX is intended to mitigate the longer terms risks that could potentially extinguish consciousness as we know it. We have sort of a delicate candle of consciousness sort of flickering in the darkness here. And I don’t know if you guys have seen any evidence of aliens, but I sure haven’t. (laughs) I get asked that a lot. So I think Fermi’s paradox is just an incredibly interesting question. And I’m not sure who said it, but there is either a lot of aliens or none and those answers are equally terrifying.

 

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